Parent power; How to keep a kid off drugs

For 12 years Carol Stein has lived in the pleasant Los Angeles bedroom community of Thousand Oaks, with its green lawn, swimming pools, and tree-lined streets with Spanish names; but it wasn't until 2 1/2 years ago that quite by chance she discovered the extent of drug abuse in the community

A teacher, chatting with a group of parents at a "Back to School Night" at the local high school, described the effects of angel dust (PCP). Mrs. Stein said her hair stood on end, especially when she leaned further that students could get and drug they wanted at the park across the street from the school.

Trying to prevent drug abuse seemed like taking on the entire world to Mrs. Stein. But then, about six months later, she was driving down the road between the park and the school and noticed a sign: "Students are not permitted to eat lunch in the park."

"That is absolutely ridiculous," she thought. "That's what parks are for, picnics, eating. They've always been for that."

The realization that the park was now given over to pushers outraged her. She drove straight home and announced, "I'm going to do something about the drug problem."

"Fine," said her husband and teen-age sons, not in the least bit surprised. She was always getting involved in community affairs.

To verify what the teacher had said on "Back to School Night," Mrs. Stein called the Parks Department and the Ventura County Drug Coordinator. They were surprised to hear from a parent, but, yes, they told her, there was indeed a serious countywide drug problem. The difficulty was that everyone denied it and left it to the Parks Department and the law enforcement agencies to handle.

As she did more research, Mrs. Stein found that not only in her own community , but all over the United States a lot of denial was going on. Denial by parents, school officials, and elected representatives.

"But the kids know what's going on." Mrs. Stein says. "They know who's dealing. They know where to get the drugs and the paraphernalia. They're going to the parties. And sometimes the parents know, too. But they're scared. Practically the worst thing that can happen to parents is for their kids to get involved in drugs. Parents feel powerless. When you're talking to a stoned kid , it's like a bad telephone connection; you're not really getting through."

Because they don't know how to deal with the problem --plus the social injunction against illegal drug use -- parents carry with them the burden of shame.

"I've known drug abuse counselors who've told me that parents have put on wigs as disguises to come and see them. They don't want their neighbors to find out. Some parents think they're the only ones facing the problem," Mrs. Stein says.

Elected representatives prefer to deny that the problem exists because it reflects on their effectiveness.

School officials, too, have their reasons for not admitting it. "The teachers are tired. The principals are tired. And, besides, they've been burned," Mrs. Stein says. "They have their hands tied. A lot of times, school people have intervened in a situation and they've been stung. They're found a child under the influence of drugs or alcohol and they've called the under the influence of drugs or alcohol and they've called the parents. And, even though the child showed evidence of influence or was caught with the marijuana in his hand, the parents denied it. So now many of the teachers just sit back, teach their classes, collect their paychecks, and go home."

So, while parents, school officials, and elected representatives deny it, Mrs. Stein feels that the "invisible plague" is spreading. She says that she herself might have dropped her fight against drug abuse if it hadn't been for Dr. Lee Truman, the pastor of the Westlake United Methodist Church. Dr. Truman's accounts of his work with young drug pushers and users impressed Carol Stein. He told her that the problem was worse in Thousand Oaks and the neighboring communities than in the ghettos where people have less money and time for drugs. He also told her something more important: She was a parent, she had a lot of power, and could do something about it.

Encouraged, she went home and started telephoning and kept on telephoning, until at last the she found two other mothers who were as concerned as she was: Sharon Merrill and Sheila Aitken.

The problem was so big that the three women decided to involved as many parents as possible. They held meetings in the elementary schools of Thousand Oaks and the two neighboring Conejo Valley communities of Westlake Village and Newbury Park. They contracted a variety of speakers from law enforcement agencies, departments of education, probation, health, and social services, and clergymen. The women put notices of the meeting on bulletin boards all over the valley, in church newsletters, in the newspapers, and on the radio.

Over 300 parents attended these first meetings. To date, nine other elementary schools and one junior high school have held similar meetings.

Out of the Thousand Oaks meeting a steering committee was formed, called Concerned Parents on Juvenile Drug Abuse. Its goals: parenting skills education , community awareness, alternatives to youth drug use, and improvement in the school curriculum. In short, the aim was to stop drug use before it started.

It was a team effort all the way around. Motivation and energy came from the parents; expertise came from Dr. Alicia Dondero and Bennie Crayton of the division of Drug Programs on Prevention and Education at the Ventura County Health Services.

"They taugh us how to mobilize our community," Mrs. Stein recalls. "Until we worked with them, we were running around in the bureaucracy like little rats in a maze. They guided us through. We found out that despite the relative smallness of our community there were still professional resources available for aid and education."

Mrs. Stein and her group found there was no liaison between agencies and groups who could help the drug-troubled youth and their parents, so they printed up a list of all of the referral agencies in the area and laid the foundation for the monthly Conejo Valley Drug Abuse Prevention Network Newsletter.

Parents began meeting in each others homes. Instead of holding Tupperware parties they gathered to listen to professionals, to discuss how they themselves might have contributed to the drug problem, and to discuss how to bring their families closer together. For instance, discussions revealed that in some cases both parents work and spend up to three hours daily fighting commuter traffic. When they get home at night, they're tired and bad-tempered; and the children, some of whom have been alone since school let out, are demanding attention. They get yelled at. Dinner is eaten in front of the television set and Archie Bunker and Wonder Woman do all the talking.

Besides urging parents to take more weekend outings with their children, Mrs. Stein and her group are encouraging a family night once a week. Television is turned off, and everyone in the family contributes in one way or another -- preparing the food, or providing the entertainment.

The drug abuse prevention network, together with the local PTA, implemented a series of after-school parenting skills classes at the elementary school. Over 100 parents attended. The idea has spread.

Mrs. Stein believes that society conditions its citizens to believe that problems -- and the guilt caused by such problems -- can be avoided by using alcohol and other drugs. Children see parents see their children behaving as they themselves behave, they are hurt, bewildered, and even shocked. Parents and children quit communicating.

"We're trying to get the parents to see that the way they behave has an enormous influence on their children's attitude toward drug use," Mrs. Stein explains.

Mrs. Stein's drug abuse prevention network feels strongly about prevention. "We want to start in kindergarten," she says. "High school is too late, and junior high school is almost too late. Our concern with the older kids is getting them into good treatment programs and in giving them alternative activities to drug-taking and drinking. But, we're really focusing on young parents and young children so that by the time those children get to high school , this thing can be turned around."

Working with the school board, Mrs. Stein and her Network started a program to help teachers learn how to build a child's self-esteem. Then when temptation comes the child can say "no" to peer pressure and drugs.

About working with the school board, Mrs. Stein says, "It wasn't easy. I'm not trying to fool you. It was hard. In the beginning we were just a few parents, but we kept going back. Parents have got to get used to the fact that the schools do not belong to the principals or the school board. The schools belong to the community."

Mrs. Stein feels strongly that since the teachers are with the children five days a week, from five to six hours a day, they also can exercise a strong influence against drug use. A teacher, she believes, can made a child happy or miserable; he can inspire and discourage or discourage; he can undermine a child's self-confidence or strenghten it. "You know," Mrs. Stein says, "sometimes the best alcohol and drug prevention program seldom mentions the word 'drug.'"

As an alternative to drugs, the Network is trying to involve young people in citizens community projects.

To wake up the community to the drug problem and to show parents where they can find help the Network, together with the Thousand Oaks City Council, proclaimed a "Focus on Life -- Community Awareness Week" in late 1979. One of the biggest hits of the week was the mall show, with gaily decorated booths representing the different country drug prevention and intervention services, and with helium-filled balloons, clowns, and music.

"The whole thing only cost us a $1,000," Mrs. Stein says, "and thousands of people came. The heavy attendance was a surprise to everyone." The Network's entire budget for 2 1/2 years has been only $2,500, and most of that went for stamps and stationery."

Last spring, concerned about the tons of money going into drug treatment programs (compared with monies going into prevention), Mrs. Stein and her parents group supported a piece of state legislation that, ironically, would have funded the kind of activities the network was already providing. The legislation (vetoed by Governor Brown) would have made the community (as represented by parents and agency officials), not the schools, responsible for the ball, then carrying it as well into the schools.

One of the professionals behind this legislation was Hank Resnick, staff writer for the National Institute of Drug Abuse's Pyramid project, which is designed to help communities nationwide with their substance abuse problems.

To illustrate how much misinformation a child can acquire while growing up, Mr. Resnick said. "'I don't know who told you that but . . .' and I can straighten her out. I'm glad my kid has me for a parent. Because of my work in drug prevention education, I can separate fact from fiction."

Perhaps because of his years of reporting from inside schools, Mr. Resnick is not as sympathetic toward the schools' problems as Carol Stein is. He sees no hope of curriculum changes to make education more relevant nor of students being plugged into community social service work as an extension of their classroom studies.

"Schools are less reformable now than they were in the early '70s," Mr. Resnick says. "they're under pressure. The educational system has gotten worse. In the '60s there was affluence and innovation and now there's declining enrollment and the loss of faith in the whole educational system. Not only are they not teaching drug prevention, they're not even teaching the basics."

Mr. Resnick related that many teachers had told him that they would prefer their students to come to class stoned.

"Burned out and depleted teachers, who are so mired in bad teaching that they can't even relate to their students, naturally welcome a kid who's bombed out and absolutely happy, instead of disruptive and rude," Mr. Resnick claims."A disruptive kid in the classroom is a personal powers struggle. It's the teacher's nemesis."

Turning from classes to caucuses, Mr. Resnick discussed the liquor and wine lobbies. He recalled that under Governor Brown's direction, a series strong radio and television public service announcements on the harmful effects of alcohol were made. Due to pressure from the wine and liquor lobbyists the spots were scrapped.

"Parents have got to out-lobby the special interest groups," Mr. Resnick says. "Look what Carol Stein's Network did for SB-1840, the grass roots funding bill. That bill was stuck in committee, and Carol mobilized a letter-writing campaign involving PTA members and other parents; it sailed through. True, it was vetoed by Governor Brown; but the next time around, we'll give him more support against the special interest groups. There'll be more parent power."

Carol Stein is currently helping to establish programs similar to hers in the minority communities of Ventura County.

"We do not want this to be a middle-class white movement," she says."I understand from talking with people in charge of agencies in the minority communities that there is a greater feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness there."

At a National Institute on Drug Abuse conference entitled "Parent Power in the Prevention of Drug Abuse" in Washington, D.C., last May, Mrs. Stein was invited to describe the Conejo Community Drug Abuse Prevention Network, which is now being used as a statewide model in California

This winter, Carol Stein, the parent and nonprofessional, explained her program to a meeting of California County Drug Coordinator professionals in San Diego. Shortly afterwards, she repeated her presentation in Kansas City, Mo.

She is elated. "All our county agencies and resources are out in the field working with the communities. They are out with the people!"

So, beginning with just one mother, plus an encouraging husband and sons plus an ominous and intimidating sign in the park, a drug abuse prevention network has evolved which has grown to include over 2,000 parents.

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